If African filmmakers believed more in their own stories, and had more funding, cinema on the continent could be on the brink of a golden age
Africa’s film industry is set to play a key role in creating new jobs in Africa as the continent prepares for massive demographic waves. This is according to a recently released report, Framing the Shot – Key Trends in African Film 2018 by Dayo Ogunyemi’s Lagos-based production house 234 Media, in partnership with the Goethe-Institut and with support from the German Federal Foreign Office. Within a generation, the report says, Africa will have the world’s largest workforce, while it will have more than a third of the world’s population by 2100.
According to the analysis, the two largest film industries in Africa currently contribute a total of $1 billion to the continent’s annual GDP. Nigerian film generates close to one million jobs, while the South African industry generates over 21,600. Box-office revenues reached $12 million for Nigeria last year, with a third of the total going to local films. South Africa boasted a significantly larger revenue at $89.6 million for the same period, but with only 3.8% going to South African productions.
A scene from Necktie Youth, the award-winning 2015 directorial debut of 28-year-old South African filmmaker Sibs Shongwe-La Mer.
“Exhibition infrastructure, as evidenced by cinema screen penetration ratios, is low in every country in Africa,” write the authors of the report. “This places a ceiling on what film releases can earn in domestic cinemas… If Africa were to follow China’s example and invest extensively in cinema infrastructure… annual box-office revenues across Africa could rise to $1.5 – $2 billion; with Nigeria and South Africa accounting for as much as $500 million.”
But investments are still falling short, and African filmmakers face numerous challenges in financing and distributing their productions. For producer Steven Markovitz – whose film A Kasha was selected for the 2018 Venice International Film Festival (August 28 – September 9), one of the main challenges for African producers is getting funders from established industries such as South Africa’s to co-produce films from other countries. “It’s so important that we support each other on the continent,” he commented.
For Markovitz, the film industry has greatly evolved in Africa over the past few years: “We are making better films and there is more interest in African films internationally. We need to be making more films!” The producer also believes support for great African projects is not always at hand. “There needs to be more support for African films,” he told Africa in Fact. “There is a new generation of filmmakers who are starting to get noticed. With the right support, I am feeling optimistic.”
A Kasha is a brave example of a film made in spite of countless obstacles. A truly independent production, it was shot in a war zone, in Sudan. Funding – from the Doha Film Institute, then Arab Fund For Arts and Culture, and the Berlinale’s World Cinema Fund – was obtained just before the shoot began. “(Director) Hajooj Kuka’s tenacity against many very difficult obstacles is what pulled the film over the line,” said Markovitz. “The film was made with very supportive partners and we now hope, after Venice, it will travel far and wide.”
In certain African countries with smaller film industries, where production receives meagre government support, it takes incredibly resilient teams to make a movie, let alone a blockbuster. This is the case of the mega-hit, Supa Modo, directed by Kenya’s Likarion Wainaina. One of the few African films selected for the 2018 Berlin Film Festival in February, Supa Modo went on to open the Nairobi Film Festival. Wainaina worked odd jobs in the film industry for years and funded Supa Modo by saving every penny from his pay cheque. The son of a single mother, who raised him in Kenya after breaking up with his father in Russia, Wainaina now plans to direct African sci-fi films, a genre known as “African futurism”.
For Spanish newspaper El Pais, Supa Modo is testimony that Africa is more than “corruption and poverty”. The film tells the story of Jo, “a witty nine-year-old terminally ill girl (who) is taken back to her rural village to live out the rest of her short life”. Jo wants to be a superhero, and her whole village helps to make her dream come true. Supa Modo was an unprecedented box office success in Kenya and won numerous international awards.
Another country where filmmakers face huge barriers at the time of developing their projects is Togo. Producers who have been able to thrive in this hostile environment are now hopeful after the government’s recent launch of a local film week, which included a screenwriting residency. This nod from the authorities was underlined by a statement from Togo’s Minister of Culture, Guy Madje Lorenzo: “Our wish is that the film industry be in Togo, as in other places, an activity of collective creativity at its best, a particularly promising sector of activity, providing innovative jobs with decent pay.”
Second only to India’s Bollywood in terms of number of films produced per year, Nigeria’s Nollywood has struggled to make its films more attractive to international audiences. A satirical comedy, Green White Green, recently acquired by Netflix, attempts to bridge that gap. While its plot and style do not thoroughly escape the “cheesiness” Nollywood audiences know and love, it is a film with higher artistic aims, both in its concept and its execution. While Nollywood’s trademark acting styles and stories will continue to have a large audience in Nigeria, the emergence of films like this, which can also reach a broader international audience, is certainly good news for the local film industry.
Scene from The Wound Photo: Urucu Media
At the Durban Film Mart this year, feature and documentary projects from all over Africa – including several from under-represented film industries – received awards from top European funds and markets. The awards, including several in cash, went to projects from Mozambique, Niger, Cape Verde, Zimbabwe, Benin and South Africa. Cash awards are useful, but the media exposure and connections producers can secure at Durban are often more valuable. Meanwhile, in early September, Venice was set to host African and Arab world filmmakers at the Final Cut workshop, which offers training and awards for films in the post-production stage. The work-in-progress projects selected for this year’s edition include, among others, a fiction film co-produced by Lesotho and Germany, Mother, I am suffocating, This is My Last Film About You, and a documentary co-produced by France, Chad, and Germany, The Waiting Bench.
A Kasha, is a Final Cut alumnus. The film won two awards, the Biennale prize and a subtitling services award, at the 2017 edition. “Final Cut was great for the film to get feedback on the rough cut and raise its profile with the international film community,” Markovitz told Africa in Fact. The film, which portrays a love story against the backdrop of Sudan’s civil war, will now compete for the festival’s coveted Critics’ Week audience award.
The Venice Film Festival could provide participating African producers with useful opportunities to reach much-needed European financing and distribution. Other films that received Final Cut awards last year included Egyptian documentary Dream Away, Tangier-set Joint Possession/Indivision, and South Africa´s The Harvesters. A South African film, The Wound – a production of Urucu Media, one of the most active and successful film companies in the region – was an acclaimed participant at a previous edition.
African film continues to face a number of problems, according to Elias Ribeiro, who heads up Urucu Media. “I find that South Africans, and Africans in general, sometimes do not have faith in their own stories,” he told me when I had the opportunity to interview him in Rio de Janeiro in 2015. “Many of them are trying to replicate foreign film models, such as Hollywood’s. Even the government funds look for traditional Hollywood-style screenwriting… The people who run (the top international film) funds often comment that they get very few projects from Africa and they want more.”
Ribeiro’s job as a producer was to “bridge that gap between the people who have these incredible stories about these unique cultures and communities and the people who have the power to make films a reality,” he told me then. Since then, Ribeiro, arguably the most active film producer on the continent, has created a vibrant African screenwriting residency called Realness, which is now in its third edition.
With 130 applicants for its 2018 edition, Realness selected only a handful to participate in six intensive weeks of training and mentoring. After the residency, the projects are presented at the prestigious Durban Film Mart. Markets and festivals that collaborate with Realness include EAVE Producers Workshop, France’s La Fabrique Cinéma, Torino Film Lab, and Toronto Talent Lab. While African filmmakers generally have to go to European festivals and markets to receive top-quality training and exposure, Realness has brought that to African soil.
The participating filmmakers heralded “an important and exciting new wave of African storytelling by Africans for Africans and the world,” said UK literary agent David Kayser, a member of the Realness 2018 selection panel. “The strength of the projects, and the talent driving them, will benefit hugely from the expertise, exposure and incubation that Realness offers and I look forward to seeing how they mature.”
Realness has helped to fully develop a number of projects for the international financing market, Ribeiro says. But the African film industry lacks “creative producers who understand development and international financing and distribution, and can advance the projects forward.”
Ribeiro’s company picks one project from every Realness batch per year to develop inhouse. “Fifteen projects from 12 countries have participated in Realness. The residency has a strong focus on women filmmakers, and 50% of the participants have been women of colour,” he comments.
But, he added, projects that were not picked up by Urucu didn’t progress. To address the problem, Ribeiro and his partners aim to create a producers’ training programme to be run in cooperation with EAVE, which already runs two such programmes in Latin America and Asia. Ribeiro, a Brazilian transplant to South Africa, has a vision for African film that many local producers probably lack, perhaps in part because his country of origin has one of the world’s most solid systems for funding national films.
“African film is still problematic because there are very few financial instruments to develop content, let alone finance a production,” Ribeiro told Africa in Fact. He decried the fact that producers still have to rely on seeking European co-producers and funds that support projects from developing nations.
Ribeiro was recently appointed director of the Cape Town Film Market, one of Africa’s most established venues for making film-production deals. The 2018 edition, which takes place in October, will be the first under Ribeiro’s direction. “I would like the Cape Town Film Market to become a space where policymakers gather to look at best practices in different territories, to analyse what is working and how it was implemented. With a coordinated effort, new financing instruments for the global south could emerge,” he told Africa in Fact.
In his vision, producers in Africa and Latin America could partner to create “something similar to the European Union’s Media Programme”, which supports film production across European borders. Meanwhile, BRICS countries could develop their own version of the European Council’s Eurimages, which provides funding for co-productions and fosters cooperation among film professionals from different member nations. As Ribeiro sees it, if African filmmakers believe their own stories more, and more funders understand their economic potential, African filmmaking could be on the brink of a golden age.
African food entrepreneurs need government support to protect the value of their heritage products
When it comes to international food fashion, Africa is the new Asia. So, say über-influential, absurdly chic London food design studio Bompas & Parr. Their 2018 report, The Imminent Future of Food, predicts that internationally the “obsession with food from Asian countries will dwindle in favour of African cuisine because (Africa) is arguably the main remaining world food culture left to be adopted, adapted and commercialised.
“Bompas & Parr has already worked on African-focused projects for European commercial clients which reveal starkly different flavours, consumer expectations and notions of hospitality,” the report continues. “At our bar, Alcoholic Architecture, we also hosted sell-out special events incorporating Ghanaian bitters in cocktails, revealing a profound curiosity on the part of consumers for new tastes and flavours. This is just the start.”
Traditional Ethiopian dish consisting of a meat, vegetables, grains, rice and served with pancake-like injera.
The continent is also suddenly super-food central, with the worldwide wellness blogger brigade ditching last year’s chia seeds and turmeric in favour of African indigenous ingredients such as baobab and marula. Confusingly, the American actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who runs lifestyle brand and website Goop, has recently referred to both sorghum and fonio as “the new quinoa”. Since both are gluten-free, low GI, African ancient grains it is all much of a muchness as regards nutritional value – though both taste significantly better than South American quinoa.
The hipster health nuts and the foodie fashionistas aren’t wrong to recognise value in African cuisines. They offer a plethora of fine flavours, from the aromatic cumin and cinnamon infused lamb tagines of Morocco to the generous peanut and ginger joys of Ghanaian hkatenkwan chicken and on into the comforting floral flavours of a Congolese cassava kwanga bread. Interesting ingredients abound, including the rich, soured splendours of South African amasi curds and the berbere-spiced grace of an Ethiopian wot pot.
What is unsavoury is the implication that the continent’s deliciously diverse time-honoured epicurean expressions of identity exist to be “adopted, adapted and commercialised” as transient novelties in northern cosmopoles. Try adopting, adapting and commercialising a regional French food without so much as a by your leave! You’ll quickly find yourself slapped with a geographical denomination suit.
Tangible and intangible benefits can and should accrue to all sectors of African society by way of the continent’s “new Asia” status. But it is also possible that the trend will become yet another round of cultural appropriation, bio-prospecting and/or piracy. To prevent such a situation, African food entrepreneurs are attempting to take the lead in curating the commercialisation of their continent’s cuisine at home and abroad.
Turning food culture into economic value for Africans is especially important given that the Food and Agricultural Organisation reported that in 2017 there were 224 million under-nourished people in sub-Saharan Africa. On this score alone it would be morally repugnant if the fashion for African food further exploited and impoverished the continent’s culinary cultures.
Currently, the global fine-dining world is focusing on heritage flavours reimagined to delight modern palates. This trend is as true in the New Nordic cuisine of René Redzepi, chef-patron of two-Michelin star Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark, as it is in the work of Pierre Thiam, executive chef of the contemporary African restaurant Nok by Alara in Lagos, Nigeria.
Nok, located within a bespoke building designed by Ghanaian-British architectural superstar David Adjaye, serves a signature starter of ofada rice balls sauced with egusi (wild gourd seed pesto) and ndole (bitter, leaf salsa). At Epicure – Johannesburg’s culinary kingdom of Afro-optimistic elegance – Burundian-born chef/patron Coco Reinarhz engages in an exquisite ancient-to-modern culinary dialogue that includes a plate of fried plantain aloko topped with a swirl of tuile biscuit and a quenelle of ruby bissap rouge (hibiscus) sorbet.
This style of cooking often requires relatively rare traditional ingredients and indigenous knowledge. Chefs often have to seek out and commission such crops from relatively isolated, traditional subsistence farming and foraging communities, many of whom exist on the fringe of the cash economy. In so doing, they create and maintain profitable markets for otherwise endangered heritage foods, and go some way to promoting biodiversity and supporting indigenous agricultural and culinary knowledge.
This is as true for Brazilian Chef Alex Atala, who uses Amazonian ingredients at DOM, his Sāo Paulo restaurant; Atala won the Chef’s Choice award at the 2014 S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2014. It’s also true of Paternoster, where South African chef Kobus Van der Merwe creates perfect plates, such as maasbanker bokkom and pear salad with ice plant, dune spinach and sea lettuce tossed in pickled ginger, celery and almonds.
Executive Chef Pierre Thiam. Photo: supplied
Ivorian entrepreneur Swaady Martin, CEO of Yswara fine African tea, describes her business model as “luxe ubuntu”. A recent winner of a Brand Africa award, she processes and blends African heritage ingredients sourced from fair-trade growers, using equipment commissioned and manufactured in Africa. She says, “luxe ubuntu describes the concept of an inclusive luxury business model in which all the members of a supply chain are beneficiaries of the economic value generated. We are committed to reversing the commodity trap by keeping the value add in Africa.”
Martin, who opened her flagship store at the Cosmopolitan Building in Maboneng, Johannesburg in September 2017, has concluded deals with Selfridges in the UK and Galeries Lafayette in France. Such international links not only provide tangible benefits of export earnings and profit repatriation, but also play a role in distancing Africa from hitherto commonplace negative stereotypes by encouraging desirable associations with elegant, world-class wonderful artisan offerings.
Some government interest and assistance could further promote such image improvements. In Peru, government promotion of regionally specific, high-end heritage cuisine, and the restaurants that serve it, brought significant economic benefits. Until recently, for instance, tourists commonly considered Lima to be a kidnap risk and begrudged the stopover on the way to Machu Picchu. It is now a “must-visit” food experience destination, with five restaurants in the top 50 of the S. Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants list. Similarly, the Mexican government has promoted the country as a culinary destination and inscribed Aztec food culture in the UNESCO-administered list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
How is it that the government of Mozambique has not applied for piri piri to be classified as such? This classic southern African sauce/seasoning is increasingly popular worldwide with an appreciative audience – most of whom have no notion that their favourite flavour originates in the Afro-Lusitanian fusion food culture of Maputo. Meanwhile, the “peri peri” (sic) potato chips sold all over the US are an inferior interpretation that undermines the value of authentic piri piri and may limit the long-term potential for Mozambican food entrepreneurs to create a food tourism industry around their fiery birthright.
Burundian-born Coco Reinarhz, chef/patron of Epicure in Johannesburg. Photo: Clinton Nortje
Real Mozambican piri piri is made from an African Landrace chilli, according to a regionally specific recipe. It would, therefore, be an ideal candidate for an international Geographical Indicator (GI), which would protect the value that resides within such heritage. Currently, the European Union (EU) has registered more than 837 GI-recognised products, including Cheddar cheese, Parma ham and Rioja wine. Following World Trade Organisation (WTO) dispute resolution proceedings, the EU was forced to amend its GI legislation to recognise third-country GIs.
It is now possible for producers from non-European countries to register GIs under EU Regulation 510/2006, provided the GI is protected in its country of origin. Colombian coffee was the first product from a developing country to be granted such GI by the EU. With Europe being a major export market for many developing world products, this law affords producers a valuable opportunity to protect their GIs throughout the EU member countries by submitting a single application.
GI applications under the EU system require detailed documentation on the product’s specificity and link with the territory. To date, the only African products registered with the EU GI are Rooibos, Honey bush, Karoo lamb and Essourian argan oil. Yet African governments neglect to protect foodstuffs in their own jurisdictions, while they hamper food entrepreneurs’ ability to put a premium value on their intangible cultural heritage at export.
The world is waking up to the beauty of African cuisines. Recognition is all well and good. A share in the tangible and intangible value of such food cultures for the people from whence they come would be better. A culinary coalition is required to make this a reality.
African restaurateurs and other food producers are increasingly creating partnerships, upstream with suppliers and downstream with end users. What they lack is sufficient governmental support and respect. A trend is transient. African epicurean entrepreneurs must campaign for a permanent seat at the table of great world food cultures. As we saw earlier, this would be just the start.
Jewellery by Kenyan label I AM I Photo: industrieafrica.com
There has been something of a cultural revolution around Africa as designers return to their roots
In October last year, renowned British fashion designer Stella McCartney launched her Spring 2018 collection at Paris Fashion Week. Her (mostly) white models sashayed down the catwalk swathed in gloriously colourful, sheeny Ankara fabric, the traditional cloth associated with West Africa.
While the applause from the glamorous attendees at the world’s premier fashion show was enthusiastic, McCartney was excoriated on BlackTwitter. The fashion icon, feted for designing the evening dress that Prince Harry’s bride, Meghan Markle, wore to her post-royal wedding party in May, was accused of cultural appropriation.
Nigerian writer and poet Amarachi Nwosu, using 140 characters, lambasted McCartney for using Ankara prints, “but using only one African model on her runway”. OkayAfrica, the digital media platform that focuses on African music, style and politics, accused the designer of “fashion colonialism”.
It kicked off the hoary old debate on cultural appropriation – who owns any particular cultural style and is acknowledgement of the cultural origins of a “borrowed” style necessary? BlackTwitter questioned whether it was appropriate that cloth traditionally worn by working class Africans was being used in designer wear that would sell for outrageous sums.
Shomoye George wrote: “I’m Nigerian! This is a joke! Feels like a slap as well! Loads doesn’t feel right here. Also feels exploitative. Where is the representation?” Cecile Victoire countered in the twittersphere with: “I’m very proud of all this because in African homes we wear Ankara to clean/cook. Seeing it on a runway… I love it.”
International designers Marc Jacobs, Givenchy, Eley Kishimoto, Jean Paul Gaultier, Diane Von Furstenberg, Dries van Noten, Kenzo and Paul Smith are just a few whose recent collections have included garments made out of Ankara cloth. Celebrities who’ve bought into this fashion trend include Beyoncé, Rihanna, Fergie and Kim Kardashian.
However there are real concerns, raised over decades, that dominant western cultures exploit the very specific ingredients of indigenous cultures without permission or acknowledgement. Designers have drawn inspiration from a host of ethnic traditions and ceremonial costumes since the beginning of fashion.
Renowned French coutourier Yves St Laurent’s 1967 African collection showcased the continent as exotic, ethnic, tribal, primitive; terms that many Africans – then and now – saw as pejorative and belittling.
The topic has even been debated by a UN agency, the World Intellectual Property Organisation. A question being asked is whether there should be laws to “prevent people from profiting from cultural appropriation”. Legislation, if implemented, would protect among other things, indigenous design, dance and medicines. South African designer and media commentator on fashion Craig Jacobs – whose clothing label, Fundudzi, dresses women around the world – is on the side of global fashion homogenisation.
“I am really not a loudhailer myself when it comes to complaining about the cultural appropriation of fashion,” he told Africa in Fact. “Do we hear US designers crying foul if we use denim, that most American of fabrics? Or when we draw inspiration from Japanese kimonos or cherry blossom motifs?” However, he adds that it is vital to acknowledge sources of inspiration, as John Galliano did when he famously celebrated the Maasai in a collection for Dior back in the 1990s.
From the autumn/winter 2018 collection by Malian label Xuly Bet Photo: industrieafrica.com
In fact, few of the fabrics that are now known to be distinctly African – textiles that are luminously waxed, brightly coloured or intricately patterned – originated in Africa. Scotland produced the bright tartan cloth we have come to associate with the Maasai. Senegal’s bazin fabric comes from Italy; Nigeria’s adire material, worn like a sarong, comes from Japan. South African ShweShwe, the traditional dress of Xhosa women, was first brought to the country by German immigrants in the late 1800s. So all of these fabrics, history teaches us, were culturally appropriated by Africans in Africa.
Meanwhile, there’s been something of a cultural revolution around Africa as creators of fashion return to their roots.
The Eastern Cape’s MaXhosa by Laduma Ngxokolo – one of South Africa’s fastest-growing fashion exports – has turned traditional Xhosa patterns into an international sensation. The very distinctive knitwear brand, with its bright colours and geometric patterns, has among its fans international superstars that include singers Beyoncé and Alicia Keyes. Putting paid to the idea that fashion has borders is Thai-born Capetonian Chu Suwannapha who, under the label Chulaap, has created a South African style that draws from South African cultural traditions.
Lesotho blankets, introduced by the Victorians and used practically for warmth in the icy mountain kingdom, have recently been incorporated into world fashion. They’ve been turned into handbags, coats and coat dresses, and the very unique Lesotho patterns (among them conical hats and red-hot poker flowers) have adorned everything from underwear to cushion covers. Last year, Louis Vuitton was accused of cultural appropriation after referencing the Basotho blanket in their menswear collection, Fundudzi’s Craig Jacobs points out.
However, the money-making business of fashion, and the exporting of African style to the rest of the world, is a topic that often trumps the cultural appropriation conversation. Fashion is big business. Indeed, West African economies have been revitalised by the growing global interest in Ankara. Nigeria’s textile industry, for example, has gained at least 25 new textile companies, after a decades long slump.
Countries such as Burkina Faso and Mali have strong textile heritages, including hand-woven cotton, indigo dyeing, and the Malian bogolan fabric, which is handmade from cotton and dyed with fermented mud. African design, which includes fashion and furniture and style, seems to have broken free from the old labels allotted by colonialism.
Social media, online purchasing websites, and the dissolution of borders have ensured that there are only global brands. One is as likely to find the same labels at Siam Paragon in Bangkok, Galeries Lafayette in Paris or Sandton City in Johannesburg. Jacobs attributes the new-found African confidence to changing patterns as African economies grow at exponential rates. He adds that online shopping has also made African brands easier to sell to an international audience.
The large and growing African diaspora naturally transports African fashion around the world, moving style and design imported from this continent into the mainstream. Los Angeles in the US hosts an annual Ankara Festival, where the purpose is to showcase the best of African culture through fashion, music, dance and food. It’s also a platform to introduce and expose young designers to international markets.
Menswear by South African designer Rich Mnisi Photo: industrieafrica.com
New York, London, Dublin, Toronto and Paris are among the world’s major fashion centres that host Africa fashion weeks, alongside their own haute couture shows. Social responsibility, empowerment of women, ethically sourced materials, humane treatment of garment workers… these are some of the sustainability issues being discussed as Africa finds new markets internationally.
Nigerian-born, London-based fashion designer Duro Olowu has been quoted as saying that Africa’s global fashion reach, combined with an awareness of social responsibility, “makes for a powerful statement”. Eco fashion has become part of a growing design philosophy and has at the centre of its goal the adoption of systems that are kind to both humans and the environment.
Helping to put African fashion on the map is Nigerian born, award-winning author Chimamanda Adichie who has taken to social media to launch her “Wear Nigerian” campaign. It’s designed to “sensitise and encourage people to buy from both upcoming, as well as established designers, to boost local trade and manufacturing”.
“In the past few weeks, I’ve bought more Nigerian brands than I ever have in the past,” Adichie wrote recently in a Facebook post. “I’ve discovered new names. I’ve been filled with admiration for the women and men running their businesses despite the many challenges they face. I’m particularly interested in ‘inward-looking’ brands, those for whom dressing Nigerian women is as important as other goals.” She uses her Instagram account to show off Nigerian outfits.
Stella McCartney, in fact, did acknowledge the origin of her Spring 2018 fabric on Instagram. New ethical standards are becoming more established in the fashion world globally. As regards Africa, these include initiatives aimed at meaningful social change as well as partnerships all along fashion’s supply chains that are economically acceptable to all. African fashion, whether in controversial or glowing terms, has made it onto the global scene. Africa is taking its rightful place in international couture.
Its heyday as Africa’s musical epicentre may be over, but Kinshasa’s music scene is anything but dead
Dripping with sweat, I put my guitar down and hurry to join our singer at the front of the stage for the dance routine. Our rhythm section glides into another 15-minute percussion break. The entire crowd is on its feet, repeating our steps. Oversized bottles of Primus, Tembo and other local beers line the tables, while an ntaba (goat) grill in the corner is spewing smoke over everyone. We’ve been playing for three hours already and it’s only just getting started. A marathon night awaits.
My band, Capitaine Tokoss & l’Orchestre Kinsonique, is playing at Freebox, a dingy, unassuming bar crammed awkwardly into a triangular patch of land adjoining Rondpoint Forescom, a roundabout in the downtown Gombe district of Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It’s June 2017 and we’re halfway through our tour of the Kinshasa bar circuit. This gig has a special resonance for me: I’m finally playing on the same stage where, on my second night in the Congolese capital in June 2014, I saw Papa Wemba, the “king of rumba,” launch Maitre d’Ecole, his last-ever album.
Jean Goubald (vocals, centre left) makes a special guest appearance at Moli Mokelenge (vocals and guitar, centre right) concert at Guez Arena, Kinshasa, 26 August 2016. Rest of the lineup: Yves Karim Ntumba (bass guitar), Paulin Lukombo (drums) and Shaddai Kadi (congas) Photo: Andrew Panton
Musicians in today’s scene live in the shadows of the glory days that Papa Wemba once knew. Kinshasa was the birthplace of the Congolese rumba and soukous (from the French secouer, “to shake”) that dominated the continent in the second half of the 20th century; the home to Zaiko Langa Langa, the seminal group, which Papa Wemba joined in the late 1960s before forming his spin-off, Viva La Musica, in 1977.
Back then Kinshasa was the “Rumble in the Jungle” city, which hosted James Brown, BB King and other big names in Afro-American music at the Zaire 1974 festival. The intervening years of conflict, instability and economic ruin have relegated it to playing second string on the continent, while Nigerian, Ivorian and Angolan beats have invaded the city’s bars and nightclubs.
But the kinois (residents of Kinshasa) have not lost their taste for ambiance. Music provides an escape from life in a lawless, jobless city where survival means resorting to Système D: hustling and struggling on, relying on one’s guile, grit and resourcefulness (débrouillardise in French; hence the “D”). The population is growing rapidly, being projected to double to over 24 million by 2030, according to a 2018 World Bank study of urbanisation in the DRC – but living conditions are not keeping apace.
The city’s unforgiving disparity continues to test, inspire and provoke its artists, propelling them to greater heights of expression and creativity. Some of the creative talents finding new ways to revolt against the absurdity of life in Kinshasa are the subject of an upcoming film by La Belle Kinoise, the production outfit of French film-making duo Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye.
Due for release in 2019, Système K (the “D” being replaced by the “K” for Kinshasa) features Kokoko!, a musical collaboration pairing French DJ and producer Xavier Thomas (alias débruit) with a collective of Congolese musicians whose upcycled plastic bottle xylophones, milk-powder tin guitars and drums made from old toasters give a new musical voice to items resurrected from the gutters of kin la poubelle – the trash-can city. They describe their music as “the soundtrack of Kinshasa’s tomorrow”. The style is raw, industrial, pulsating and unapologetic, mimicking the clamorous noises of the streets.
Kokoko! is the latest in a line of musical acts that La Belle Kinoise has uncovered over 15 years of exploring the underbelly of Kinshasa’s alternative scene. Other names they’ve worked with include Jupiter & Okwess International, Staff Benda Bilili and Mbongwana Star, a self-described “trans-global, barrier-busting sound machine”. However, although they’ve gained a large following in Europe, these artists neither attract, nor seek out, mass appeal at home.
Papa Wemba Photo: Radio Okapi.
The mainstream, meanwhile, is experiencing an identity crisis. Kinshasa’s musicians and ambianceurs often proudly point out the influence of their country’s music on their West African colleagues, but the reverse is increasingly true. Take, for example, Fally Ipupa, who claimed to introduce a new style of music with his last album, Tokooos, which features Nigerian star Wizkid and has a distinctly naija feel. Or take Koffi Olomide and Ferre Gola, who, although sticking to failsafe Congolese formulae in their latest releases, have both recorded with J. Martins, another big Nigerian name.
This sort of reinvention is not new to the Kinshasa scene. Congolese rumba was born in the 1940s when Afro-Cuban styles arrived (or, perhaps, returned) from the Caribbean and mixed with traditional Congolese sounds. Soukous, rumba’s up-tempo offspring, emerged with the ascendancy of electronic instruments. Its two-part song structure, culminating in the extended seben(e) dance section, was introduced later in the 1970s. As the cassette tape, the new technology of the day, transformed their works into piracy-prone commodities, musicians now realised it was the thrill of dancing that would keep punters coming to live shows in spite of the worsening economy.
Today’s technology gives Congolese musicians greater access to mainstream audiences, both at home and abroad. The telecoms companies promote upcoming talent – among them, Gaz Mawete (Vodacom) and Innoss’B (Africell) – as part of a drive to stay connected to their younger, smartphone-owning customer segments. A new generation of beatmakers reinterpreting Congolese rhythms with electronic sounds is emerging thanks to increasingly available (but often pirated) digital music technology and the viral power of YouTube and social media.
Local start-ups Baziks and Kivusik have created home-grown music apps, albeit without the reach or firepower of Google’s offering. The launch, in April 2018, of Trace Kitoko, a channel dedicated to Congolese music and arts on Trace Group’s TV and streaming services, was a firm signal of confidence that the DRC’s “incredible music force” – as the company’s website describes it – still has the power to capture and captivate audiences across the continent.
For a showpiece demonstration of this force, look no further than Bakolo Music International. Convened by the late Wendo Kolosoy, they were part of the so-called “first generation” of musicians that created and popularised Congolese rumba in the 1940s. Bakolo, aptly, means “pioneers”. The group of near-octogenarians has reformed, recruiting an upcoming young star, Jocelyn Balu, to join them in Wendo’s absence. They are currently on a tour of Europe and have begun work on a new album (due for release in early 2019) containing a mix of new compositions and old classics, including the timeless Marie-Louise.
Rodriguez Vangama and Les Salopards performing at Guezarena, 2016 Photo: Andrew Panton
The Bakolo exemplify the character traits that, to my mind, define the Kinshasa scene: solidarity, camaraderie, resilience, and, of course, astonishing talent and creativity. Music in Kinshasa is a shared enterprise, a layered tapestry, which each generation contributes to, reinterprets and reinvents. That shared enterprise embodies the social fabric of the city, woven and embroidered by migrants from all corners and ethnicities of the country.
When Papa Wemba died in April 2016, nearly two years after I saw him play at Freebox, impromptu memorial concerts and parties were organised in almost every quartier (neighbourhood) of Kinshasa during three days of national mourning, as a fervour of shared loss swept over the entire city. It was an inspiring affirmation of the unifying power of music and its role in keeping this patchwork metropolis from coming apart at the seams. Perhaps more than any other city, it’s Kinshasa that makes the musicians, and it’s the musicians who make Kinshasa.
Many in the music industry believe African music to be the source of most of the music we hear today
African music is as diverse and broad as the continent itself, with thousands of musical styles ranging from North African, with its strong Arab and Islamic influences, to that of the west, central and sub-Saharan regions of Africa. Along with indigenous instruments and traditional forms, there are modern variations, countless interpretations and a multitude of crossovers; and it’s clear that African music is not simply confined to the continent.
Actually, many in the industry consider African music to be the source of most, if not all of the music we hear today. While this is difficult to prove, it’s clear that African music has had a massive impact on contemporary music and that many significant styles of the past two centuries are rooted in the Motherland.
Balaphonics combines West African rhythms with western brass sections Photo: supplied.
Solomon Linda’s Mbube, also known as Wimoweh and The Lion Sleeps Tonight, for instance, is one of the most covered songs of all time. Composed by Linda, a Zulu migrant worker, and first recorded in 1939, this song has traversed oceans and been reinterpreted by an unexpected array of artists. Interestingly, it’s because of Henri Salvador’s 1962 version, Le Lion est Mort ce Soir, that many people in France today are still under the misconception that this South African classic is authentically French.
In the 1960’s, South African artists like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela made their mark in Europe and the US, bringing African music to western audiences. Makeba was among the first African musicians to receive worldwide recognition, and Masekela made an indelible print on the evolution of American jazz.
In 1972, Paris-based Cameroonian artist Manu Dibango recorded Soul Makossa and a year later, after being picked up by some New York DJs, it became a worldwide dance-floor hit, and the first disco song ever to make the Billboard Top 40. Decades later, the song’s catchy rhythmic chant, Mama-ko, mama-sa, maka-mako-sa was appropriated by two major pop artists – first appearing in Michael Jackson’s 1993 hit Wanna be Starting Something and later Rihanna’s Don’t Stop the Music.
Decades on, Linda’s estate is also finally the beneficiary of royalty payments after a campaign by veteran South African journalist Rian Malan. And following a lawsuit, Dibango is also one of the few artists of African origin to ever reach such a settlement.
Soul Makossa may have sparked the disco movement, but ultimately its groove is pure funk. This is confirmed by the bassist Idris Badarou, a seasoned session musician who’s played with the best – working with funk masters like Fred Wesley and touring the world and recording with contemporary African stars like Nigeria’s Femi Kuti and currently Algerian superstar Rachid Taha.
Born of Beninese parents, Badarou spent his formative years in what was then Dahomey, but has lived most of his life in France. He describes himself “as a true Parisian, but I’m also an African”.
“We’re all influenced by music from other continents,” he told me in an interview in Paris. Working with many of the giants of African music, he insists, is first of all about making music. “We’re just making music. If it comes to the African music then it’s African music, but at first we’re just making music!”
Funk, Badarou says, is essentially African music. “That’s how I got hooked on funk, because when I first heard the funk groove, that’s when I heard African music.” He credits James Brown for launching funk in 1971 with Sex Machine. Later in his life, after he met Bootsy Collins, who became his mentor, he learned that these typically funky basslines emerged when Bootsy had come back from a tour to Nigeria with James Brown.
Right: Tony Allen, 78, creator of Afrobeat drumming, found international fame with Fela Kuti in the 1970s. Today he is still playing and is honoured as one of the great innovators in 20th century rhythm. Photo: Bernard Benant
Bootsy had spent time at Fela Kuti’s legendary venue, The Shrine, in Lagos, Nigeria, which is where, according to Badarou, he learned the style he, Badarou, describes as “stretching out in the rubber band”. “Bootsy’s baselines were really African – because of the groove. For me, funk was African music.”
The 1970s also saw groups such as the Senegalese family band Touré Kunda settle in Paris. Singing in different languages to reflect the multicultural mix of the people of their region, Casamance, they released their debut album in 1979, which was the first of many that went gold. “When we arrived, we started listening to different music – French music, South African music inspired by Miriam Makeba,” says one of the Touré Kunda brothers, Sixu Tidiane Touré. “So we thought we could use our folk music and we started to work on our repertoire from Casamance, to play our own music.
“It was the first time that African people living in France had seen African people play in their own language in the country of Victor Hugo,” says Touré. Credited with transforming the perception of African music in Europe, they were soon noticed and invited to collaborate by the likes of Talking Heads and Carlos Santana – who, incidentally joined them again recently, on a salsa remake of their hit Emma as featured on their new 2018 album, Lambi Golo.
The 1980s also saw the rise of artists such as Senegalese superstar Youssou N’dour, Salif Keita (the “golden voice of Mali”), and “world music” initiatives such as Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio and label. In 1987, the Guinean singer Mory Kanté released Yeke Yeke as a single from his third studio album, Akwaba Beach. The song was an instant hit, reaching number one on the European charts in 1988, and becoming the first African album to sell over a million copies internationally.
African music had always flourished on its own ground, but with increasing globalisation it began to expand beyond its previously regionalised presence. In the late 1980s, the term “world music” was established as an industry category. While many differ as to the source of this ridiculously broad global genre, some saw it as a derogatory way of subjugating all music from non-western cultures. Yet ironically, its strength and longevity lies in its vagueness.
Senegalese singer and guitarist Baaba Maal is one such critical voice. He has been widely quoted as saying, “I think that African music must get more respect than to be put in a ghetto like that. We have something to give to others. When you look to how African music is built, when you understand this kind of music, you can understand that a lot of modern music that you are hearing in the world has similarities to African music. It’s the origin of a lot of kinds of music.”
With a large immigrant community and the world-music boom of the 90s, Paris became the international centre of African music. And although the digital era is affecting the way we consume music, this city remains the global epicentre of African music. As we have seen, African artists have had huge commercial success in recent years – but it is usually through their collaborations with big names from the US or Europe.
With over 35 million albums sold worldwide, Senegalese-American Akon, sits solidly at number one on the Forbes Africa’s 2017 list of the top 10 most bankable artists on the continent. Some critics question whether the music from artists like him is really African. What does that mean? For me, and beyond the hype, distinctively African music has an underlying pulse that sustains and remains, even when times are tough. Only a handful can ever become superstars.
The sounds of African music have inspired maestros and music makers across the globe. Consider Afrobeat, the musical genre that originated in the 1960s as a blend of Ghanaian highlife, Nigerian Fuji music, with American funk and jazz influences.
Percussion-driven, with complex polyrhythms and vocal chants, the style was made famous by Nigeria’s outspoken musical activist, the saxophonist Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Fela Kuti, who saw himself as a messenger who used music as a means of advocating for social change, was undoubtedly Afrobeat’s frontman. But it was the inimitable drummer Tony Allen who put the distinctive beat in the Afrobeat sound. Fela Kuti died in 1997, but Paris-based Allen is as prolific and energetic as ever. He continues to influence contemporary musicians and performs with a mastery that satisfies jazz purists and a dynamism that captivates youthful audiences. Recently, in June this year, he played to a packed house as part of the Paris New York Heritage Festival. With two distinct sets – the first a jazz tribute to Art Blakey and the second a solid Afrobeat excursion – he proved that at the age of 78 one can still be progressive and relevant.
More than half a century later, the Afrobeat sound, deemed “underground” for so long, lives on stronger than ever. Fela Kuti’s legacy has been immortalised on Broadway in Fela!, a musical about his controversial life, a creative contribution that celebrates his pioneering blend of jazz, funk and traditional African rhythms. Today Afrobeat is bigger than ever, with groups on every continent and artists from even the most unexpected countries.
Along with all this, recent years have seen the integration of Ethiopian music into the cultural landscape of Paris. Two groups worth mentioning in this regard are Akalé Wubé and Arat Kilo; both groups began, independently, about 10 years ago. Initiated by young French musicians, they found inspiration in the “golden age of Ethio-groove”, with its big-band sound, horn sections and vocal arrangements. Akalé Wubé started by covering music from the Éthiopiques series – an archival collection of compilations initiated in 1997 and released by the Paris-based record label Buda Musiqualso – but also drew from the pop idiom of the 1960s and 1970s. Immersed in Ethiopian music, the band increasingly explored collaborations with musicians and dancers from the rest of Africa and Europe, performing over 200 concerts in Europe, Asia and Africa over the past decade.
Significantly, the band collaborated with Girma Bèyènè in the latest release of this series with the 2017 album Girma Bèyènè & Akalé Wubé – Éthiopiques 30: Mistakes On Purpose. An Ethiopian legend but almost forgotten, Bèyènè hadn’t performed for over 25 years, and the collaboration began when the group invited him to perform a song at their monthly residency, L’Hermitage. Founding member of Akalé Wubé Etienne de la Sayette told me that it was “a very emotional experience”, which sparked more performances.
With the help of Francis Falceto, the producer of the Éthiopiques series, they collected all of Bèyènè’s songs, some of them live recordings, which Akalé Wubé adapted for this album. The living legend had never released as a solo artist. “I was born again because of you,” he told the band. The collaborating musicians have had successful shows in Ethiopia as well. “We are proud to play this music, but what’s important isn’t to do it like others, but to do it your [own] way,” De la Sayette told me. “We are French, we do it our way.”
Fabien Girard and Samuel Hirsch, of the group Arat Kilo, originally connected through their common love of Ethiopian music. They drew inspiration from the “swinging Addis seventies”, referenced “the grandfather of Ethio-jazz”, the veteran multi-instrumentalist Mulatu Astatke, and explored the specific structure of Ethiopian music scales. Over the years, they’ve increasingly integrated West African, Afrobeat, funk and hip hop elements into their blend of Ethiopian groove. For their latest album, Visions of Selam, they’ve join forces with Boston hip hop artist Mike Ladd and Malian songstress Mamani Keita.
While they focus on touring with Arat Kilo, both founding members also have other projects rooted in African music. For Girard, it’s playing balafon (a traditional wooden xylophone) with Balaphonics – an outfit that combines West African rhythms with western brass sections. Hirsch, meanwhile, is a member of the Bim Bam Orchestra, a 15-piece collective that combines Fela’s Afrobeat with jazz, hip hop, ragga and Caribbean rhythms. “There is a whole big family in Paris,” says Hirsch, “musicians that play African music, mixing it with music from around the world.”
Other groups such as Abdul and the Gang borrow from the east, combining Morocco’s Maghreb and Chaabi melodies in a blend of Afrobeat groove, which they call Gnawa funk. Likewise, the Lyon-based group Super Gombo infuse their Afrobeat sound with jazz, Senegalese mbalax and other West African elements.
Such cross-cultural integration is nothing new in Europe, but some say that the approach fell short in the past, with not enough appreciation of the authenticity of sources. But in my view, the current wave of cross-cultural work does aim at an inherent understanding of the African music from which it gains inspiration. This authenticity can be attributed to the African presence in France, and as Hirsch explains: “We live alongside people coming from Africa everyday, everywhere in Paris and we love it.”
He points to a Parisian tradition of mixing music from Africa. “Radio Nova has been doing it for about 30 years now, so there’s a tradition. We have it in our blood. We’ve been listening to African music since we were little, so it comes to us naturally.” Indeed, Hirsch insists that his band makes typically Parisian music, “a new kind of folk music, mixing African music with other music”.
Aside from Afrobeat, Paris’s electro scene is also growing, with DJs and producers more informed and better equipped to authentically interpret the ancient future. Styles such as Afro house, tribal house and ancestral, previously underground, are now reaching new generations across the globe. Moreover, Africa was the focus of this year’s biggest international music conference, Midem, in Cannes, in June. That affirmed the influence of African music on the international scene today. As Hugh Masekela is reputed to have said: “I’ve got to where I am in life not because of something I brought to the world but through something I found – the wealth of African culture.”